No Longer Am I Hidden: The Art of Dorothy Humphrey
Brooklyn born Dorothy Feinman (1916-2003) attended the School of Music and Art and the Pratt Institute of Design in New York. As recalled in a friend’s memoir of their student days, she roamed New York City, uptown along the great avenues, downtown in Greenwich Village, spending hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New School. In 1936 she studied at the Art Students League program in Woodstock, NY, and worked as a model for Josephine Cantine, a local artist. She married Cantine’s son and they moved to Greenwich Village where she later met William Humphrey, an aspiring young writer from Clarksville, Texas. After her divorce, she and Humphrey married in 1949.
William Humphrey (1924-1997) began teaching English and writing at Bard College that same year, and major magazines, such as The New Yorker, regularly published his short stories. The publication in 1957 of his first novel, Home From The Hill, followed by the equally successful The Ordways, allowed the talented couple to take sabbaticals from Bard and to spend time in Europe where they visited friends, museums and art galleries, particularly in Paris.
The Humphreys settled in a farmhouse outside Hudson, NY, surrounded by apple orchards and nearby trout streams. Recognizing Dorothy’s wide artistic ability, William built a studio for her that overlooked the Hudson River and the Catskills.
Dorothy Humphrey’s paintings have an over-riding sense of design and an emphasis on edginess, color and whimsy. She had an ability to capture different and sometime conflicting moods. Examples include Girl Pushing a Stroller and Christmas Cowboy. The girl in Stroller is fashionably attired in a lime green coat trimmed with yellow, a matching hat and high-buttoned shoes. The angles and geometrics of the work evoke modernism, but most compelling is the contrast between the down-turned lips and pout on the girl’s face and her doll’s fixed smile. Cowboy, circa 1953, is not so much about the boy’s features as it is about his smugness in wearing a new cowboy suit, complete with chaps, lasso, holster, and outsized cowboy hat. This cowboy’s pride is almost palpable.
Humphrey’s strong feeling for character is evident in Together (Ed and Mamie), a straightforward, sympathetic portrayal of a hard-working Depression era farm couple. The artist’s treatment of their clothes, countenance, complexion, and particularly their hands, suggests a hard life working the soil. One can imagine this American Scene painting as part of a WPA mural, even though it was painted about fifteen years after the government program ended.
Humphrey sometimes worked from photographs. Together, Ed and Mamie, are examples of paintings she based on photos by rural photographer Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959) whose work stands as a historical and sociological document of the rugged farm life and small town culture of Mid-America during the 1930s and 1940s, particularly Heber Springs, AR, where he lived.
The linear qualities of Self Portrait As a Young Artist, painted circa 1940, augment a fine color sense and reflect Humphrey’s candid, frontal approach to portraits. Young Artist is an arresting composition with the artist posed in front of a window and the Catskills in the background. Her saucy look, no doubt intended, projects independence and confidence.
Child With Toy Seated on Windsor Chair and Child Wearing a Bonnet (which Humphrey reportedly claimed, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, was a self-portrait), show her whimsicality to great effect. These strongly painted works in a modernist style, droll and accomplished, are about youthful wonder, curiosity and playfulness.
Woman With Black Hair, a profile of a woman’s face superimposed on a frontal view with her black hair arranged geometrically, shows Humphrey’s flirtation with Cubism and her skill in dealing with the principle of simultaneity. It recalls some Picasso portraits done in the 1960s, but Woman is not so much focused on form, as Picasso often was, as on color. Humphrey’s palette is a striking use of black, gray, white, and purple, and background shades of orange, yellow and lemon.
The twentieth century fostered a number of abstract styles, generally moving away from the naturalism that had nurtured the growth and acceptance of still life painting earlier in America. Nonetheless still life painting always has retained its relevance for artists (and collectors) and was a favorite means of artistic expression for Dorothy Humphrey. As an aside, it is interesting to note that when Picasso made the art-historically important shift from analytic to synthetic cubism, the change took place in his still-life compositions.
Humphrey’s still life paintings are not just about everyday items. They are compositional problems she worked out in a unique fashion; ......they are also notable for their sensuous use of vivid color. They show that Humphrey was not averse to an art that enriched expressive decoration.
William Humphrey’s success as a writer undoubtedly contributed, in part, to the relative obscurity of Dorothy Humphrey’s paintings since there was little financial need for her to achieve commercial success and she increasingly devoted herself to helping further her husband’s career while continuing her artistic pursuits. In fact, Humphrey rarely showed her paintings to anyone other than close friends, and much of her work was destroyed in a fire. But this milieu did not inhibit her desire to paint, nor did the couple’s confidence in her work ever flag.
Belated public recognition came to Dorothy Humphrey in 2000 when she was persuaded to exhibit her paintings at Bard College, causing the artist, then 84, to remark playfully that she was “beginning to come out from under the flowerpot”. The Columbia County Council on the Arts posthumously gave its Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2003 to Humphrey. Her work is in the permanent collection of The Plattsburgh State Art Museum and private collections.
With the quiet pride that characterized her life and art, Humphrey confided to a friend shortly before she died: “ No longer am I hidden.”
Who can explain why accomplished artists slip into obscurity? Why are they undeservedly overlooked? In Humphrey’s case there are clues: loss as a result of a fire, a dominant career, self promotion eclipsed by financial security, privacy at odds with publicity, and distance from a thriving art scene.........
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, William Humphrey Papers; Crowder, Wakeful Anguish: A Literary Biography of William Humphrey; The Country and Abroad Magazine, October 2000; July 2002; Barbara Tonne, Personal Interviews; Blanche Cooney, Getting Away With It (unpublished memoir).
© Berkshire Art Gallery. Excerpted from the original text with the permission of Berkshire Art Gallery where a retrospective exhibition titled No longer Am I Hidden was held August 5 to September 24, 2006.